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No Place Like Home: To Draw Workers Back, Designers Making Offices Look More Like Living Rooms

With the majority of office-using employees still working from home more than 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic, building owners and employers are looking to redesign workplaces to help draw people back.  

A rendering of the pantry area in Hickok Cole's new D.C. headquarters office.

Some employers may be hesitant to mandate a return to the office in a labor market where they are competing for talent, so they are looking to make their offices more appealing places where employees want to spend their time.

Several architects who work with office tenants and landlords said Tuesday at Bisnow’s D.C. Architecture and Design Summit that employers are trying to make their offices look and feel more like the places where people have become accustomed to working: the home.  

“People got really comfortable working in their homes,” FOX Architects founder and Chairman Bob Fox said. “Now in order to get them back, we’ve got to create an environment that’s going to incentivize them, that they’re going to be excited to come back to, that’s going to be a great place to be, otherwise we’re going to lose out on that competitive talent.”

FOX Architects' Bob Fox and DCS Design's Patrick Bartlett

DCS Design Interiors Project Director Patrick Bartlett said people no longer want to spend their entire days working at a desk.

“We’ve found there are some elements that people got used to having at home, whether it’s working on a couch or at a kitchen table, that you need to bring into the office environment,” Bartlett said. “People want to get away from traditional offices and workstations. Those are the kinds of ideas we’re already starting to incorporate into our design.”

Many people have also enjoyed working on an outdoor balcony or porch space while at home, and Bartlett said office designers are looking to incorporate more outdoor workspaces that are easily accessible from the office.  

“That’s something we realized is having exterior terrace areas and exterior work environments that are directly connected to offices are a really beneficial amenity to offer as an incentive to work in an office,” Bartlett said. “They know they have access to an exterior environment to get out and get a change of scenery.”  

Savills' Wendy Feldman Block, FOX Architects' Bob Fox, DCS Design's Patrick Bartlett, Environments' Erin McDannald and Hickok Cole's Yolanda Cole

Hickok Cole Architects owner Yolanda Cole has not only worked with clients on redesigning their offices, but she has also had the opportunity to design a completely new office for her own architecture firm.  

The firm signed a 25K SF lease in June 2020 to relocate its D.C. headquarters from Georgetown to a new development in the Union Market area. She said this is the company’s first full week in the office, and about 50% of the firm's people have come in.  

“Designing and constructing our own office space during a pandemic, clearly what was happening to us at the time had an impact on how we looked at the design of the space,” Cole said.

A rendering of the private outdoor terrace at Hickok Cole's D.C. headquarters office.

Cole said the office has a variety of places for people to bring their laptops and work, such as outdoor terraces, lounges, pantries, phone booths, and small and large meeting rooms.

Employees not only wanted these spaces to work, but to socialize with their co-workers, and Cole said they have been utilizing them frequently in their first days back at the office. In addition to the secondary workspaces, Cole said the firm also changed the design of its desks.

“It’s about having variety and flexibility,” Cole said. “Even the desk spaces. Our desks you can turn them 90 degrees, rearrange them. People can move their carts. There’s a feeling of continuity and structure which we all like, but also personal control. I can rearrange my space a little bit to suit my needs.”  

Moya Design Partners' Paola Moya, OTJ Architects' Gary Martinez, Smith Group's Dayton Schroeder, Determined by Design's Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet and Hoffman & Associates' Martiena Schneller

The pandemic led Hickok Cole to increase the amount of technology it has in the office, such as screens and microphones for videoconferencing, Cole said. But the frequency of video calls has created challenges that the company has had to tackle, she said, such as employees not knowing when their co-workers are on a call.  

“We had to figure out how you signal to people when you’re at your desk that your on a call,” she said. “That was one of the first things we did. We’re experimenting with little lights you can have on the top of your monitor so if you’re approaching someone you’re not going to end up in the back of their Zoom screen.”

Cole also said having meetings with some employees who are in the office and some who are working from home has been difficult.  

“Some of the hurdles coming in this hybrid world I believe we’re into is, how do you do that when some people are in and some people are out?” she said. “That’s the tough one. It’s easier to be all remote or all in the office, but it’s pretty darn hard to do both at the same time.”

Gotham Urban Ventures' Desa Sealy, WB Engineers+Consultants' Desmond Greene, Quinn Evans' Alyson Steele and Perkins Eastman's Barbara Mullenex

Savills Executive Managing Director Wendy Feldman Block, a broker who represents tenants, said she has also seen this challenge emerging in the hybrid work environment. She said her team last week had its first presentation with a prospective client in which part of the team was in person but other members were virtual.  

“It was really hard,” she said. “The room had great audio-visual. We had two screens with the presentation on one and two people on Zoom on the other. At the end of the day, it’s a little discombobulating. We’re going to have to think of new ways to rely on new technologies in order to get that going.”  

One of the main hurdles preventing employees from wanting to come back to the office is the commute, and Quinn Evans principal Alyson Steele said she thinks the solution is to give employees the ability to walk to work by locating offices in areas with housing options.  

“It needs to be easy to move between home and work,” Steele said. “We need more mixed-use communities, and that is going to be the core of most successful developments coming up.”

Gensler's Jordan Goldstein and Boston Properties' Pete Otteni

Gensler Global Director of Design Jordan Goldstein said the tenants the firm is working with are planning to return to the office, but the offices they come back to are going to look different than they did before the pandemic. He said they will have more collaborative spaces and fewer spaces for people to work alone.  

“There’s a greater need for the office to support the cultural manifestation of a company’s brand and mission,” he said. “So what does that mean? It means opportunities for training, learning, spaces for collaboration. Maybe focus spaces are not necessarily in as great a proportion as they were before the pandemic, but with greater opportunities for common ground amenity type spaces. We’re seeing a lot of our planning start to incorporate that thinking, and that’s a really good thing we’ve added to the workplace.”  

Boston Properties Senior Vice President and D.C. Region co-head Pete Otteni said tech firms tend to lead the way in office trends, and while they haven’t yet returned to the office, they are still committing to long-term leases. He said these leases signal that while companies like Google and Microsoft may not spend 40 hours a week in the office in the future, they still see offices as the best environment for a significant component of their work.  

“What gives us some comfort is that when you look at technology companies, they’re doing two things at the same time that seem incongruent, but one is a short-term thing and one is a long-term thing,” Otteni said. “They continue to delay their return to the office, but they’re also leasing space like drunken sailors.”